19 November 2018

Invasion 1968 – The Intentions of Intervention and the Shadow of 1956 – Part I

"Through Kádár, therefore, Brezhnev was still attempting to make Dubcek the Kádár of 1968; a dynamic and popular Party head implicated in “excessive” reforms but nevertheless co-opted as the face of a Soviet-imposed 'domestic' alternative. This had clearly also been Brezhnev’s hope in his astonishing phone call with Dubcek on 13 August, in which the Czechoslovak leader fluctuated between aggravated defiance and despair."


Invasion 1968

The Intentions of Intervention and the Shadow of 1956

Part I

The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia of 20–21 August 1968 was the ultimate manifestation of the Soviets’ definition of the Prague Spring; not merely the brute fact of the invasion, but the intentions and assumptions with which it was carried out. This was the moment where all the interpretations, ideological concepts, claims and historical analogies with which the Soviet leadership and their allies had built a view of the Prague Spring finally had to face the jury of reality. As Alexander Dubcek would tell his captors in Moscow a few days after the invasion: “If the appraisal of the situation on your part is somehow unreal, then the methods and solutions to the problem will be incorrect and the results will not be those you believe you are achieving.”1

It is common for historical discussion of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to focus on what the Czechoslovak leadership failed to see or anticipate, but, in fact, what the first days of the invasion and occupation demonstrate most unambiguously is the disconnect between the intentions of the intervention and the reality of the situation in Czechoslovakia. We all know now that, eventually, normalisation was set in motion and Czechoslovak reform was decisively suppressed for two decades. But, in the short term, the invasion — judged by the intentions and ideas with which it was carried out — was a failure.

The moment of the invasion was likewise when the analogies and comparisons with Hungary’s 1956 were at their least theoretical and their most unpredictable. As airports and city centres were seized across the country by Soviet troops — supported by forces from the GDR, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria — new parallels with the end of the Hungarian uprising would inevitably surface. Yet in the early days when the shape of the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia was still forming and shifting, such parallels were very different to those that had preceded the invasion. In this moment, the Soviets found themselves once more the victims of their own arbitrarily established constructions of past and present. As they struggled to credibly maintain their own insistence on the creeping counter-revolution that had supposedly been taking over Czechoslovakia — with the statements on which their intervention was based contradicted by events — the orthodox Communist spin that had always been placed on the Soviet invasion of Hungary also suddenly became a burden. Up to this point, the Soviet and other critics who wished to tie the Prague Spring to Hungary’s 1956 had found ways to overcome the overt differences between the two phenomena, particularly when it came to accusations of grave counter-revolutionary danger in July and August. But how could it now, apparently, be proving harder to replace a Czechoslovak government on previously peaceful streets than it had been to install a new Hungarian regime in the midst of a violent uprising? In the first days, the apparent contrasts between the political effectiveness of the Soviet interventions in 1956 and 1968 increased the pressure on the invaders themselves.



On 3 August, the Czechoslovak city of Bratislava hosted a meeting where the delegates from six Warsaw Pact countries issued a declaration affirming their commitment to Soviet Socialism. When the Soviet delegation returned from the meeting in Bratislava, military preparations continued apace, while most of the Politburo headed down to Yalta in the Crimea. It proved to be somewhat of a busman’s holiday for Brezhnev, Kosygin and Podgorny at least, as they were joined by Hungarian First Secretary János Kádár between 12 and 17 August for further discussions. Here again, Kádár proved that he was neither a simplistic Soviet stooge nor a naive advocate of the Prague Spring. Brezhnev had demonstrated at Warsaw that he was moving toward the position of his own hard-liners and the bellicosity of Ulbricht and Gomulka in justifying rather than seeking to prevent a Soviet-led invasion. However, as invasion became increasingly inevitable it paradoxically made those who had stubbornly advocated that course less relevant. They were about to get their wish, but, since the military success of a Soviet invasion was not in doubt, the task of ensuring its political success was now a matter of urgency. This was a tricky task for which the most belligerent were ill-suited. Kádár, however, who was a long-term exponent and advocate of a two-direction struggle and who had continued to focus at Warsaw on the issue of “healthy forces” within the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the KSC (Komunistická Strana Ceskoslovenska), was more relevant than ever. And meeting with Brezhnev in Yalta, Kádár insisted that “a Communist solution will be impossible if it does not disassociate itself from the pre- January state of affairs and methods”.2

This reiteration of the two-direction struggle had recently been validated by the language of the KSC hard-liners’ invasion invitation letter itself, which surprisingly begins by regretting the perversion of the “basically correct post-January democratic process, the correction of mistakes and shortcomings from the past”. The second invitation letter, which was prepared in the days immediately preceding the invasion and published on 22 August in Pravda, went even further down this line. “We reject the practice of the pre-January policy”, the so-called conservative forces of the KSC Presidium insisted. “We will not tolerate any sign of a return to the compromised pre-January methods, which were resolutely rebuffed by the overwhelming majority of our people and which jeopardised the party’s leadership role.”3 So it was far from a plaintive cry in favour of a discarded policy when Kádár told his Soviet counterpart in Yalta that the Soviets must not be “the defender of yesterday ... [but] must be the standard-bearer of progress in the future”.4 While Brezhnev may have been about to lead the Soviet Politburo into an endorsement of the military intervention that Shelest had sought, he was not going to attempt to do so on the basis of the Ukrainian General Secretary’s view that it would be preferable for Czechoslovakia to return to the politics of 1966. Even as Khrushchev had launched a military crushing of the Hungarian uprising, he had recognised that no post-intervention regime could be established as a Rákosi restoration. Similarly, despite all his blind spots, Brezhnev knew in 1968 that a Soviet intervention could not credibly be launched in the name of Novotny. Therefore, we will miss the point of Brezhnev’s request at Yalta that Kádár hold a final meeting with Dubcek to “tear him away from the rightist forces”5 if we dismiss it as merely a cynical distraction from Soviet intentions. It is true that on the same day that Kádár met with Dubcek for the last time, the Soviet Politburo was making its decisive decision to invade. But, by this stage, the point of “tearing” Dubcek away from “the right” was not so much to avoid the invasion, but to give Dubcek a last chance to be part of the post-invasion settlement by siding with the “healthy forces” who had requested Soviet intervention.6

Through Kádár, therefore, Brezhnev was still attempting to make Dubcek the Kádár of 1968; a dynamic and popular Party head implicated in “excessive” reforms but nevertheless co-opted as the face of a Soviet-imposed “domestic” alternative. This had clearly also been Brezhnev’s hope in his astonishing phone call with Dubcek on 13 August, in which the Czechoslovak leader fluctuated between aggravated defiance and despair. When Dubcek said that he would discuss, with Cerník and Smrkovsky, Brezhnev’s ongoing dissatisfaction with the response of the KSC leadership to “anti-socialist” manifestations, Brezhnev responded by telling him that “the other comrades are also full-fledged members of the Presidium”. These “other comrades”, Brezhnev asserted, “can help you more than Cerník and Smrkovsky can”. The nature of the help that Brezhnev is alluding to can be appreciated in retrospect, but one cannot be sure how Dubcek took it at the time. “You, Sasha, should take a close look around”, Brezhnev advised later in the call, returning to the theme. “I don’t want to name names for you, but you know the people it would be worthwhile for you to rely on. By relying on them, you could resolve all your problems. I again say to you that by telling you this, by having this conversation, I am simply doing all I can to help you.”7 As Dubcek and Kádár parted on 17 August, the former once more made the case that the Soviet-led criticisms of the Prague Spring had been unjustified. Kádár just looked at his counterpart and said, “But you know them, don’t you?”8

While the search for a credible domestic face for a post-intervention Communist regime only had Hungary’s 1956 as a precedent, the details of that precedent understood by most people were rather different from the facts now available to us. Specifically, Kádár’s pre-intervention trip to Moscow was purposefully kept quiet and was not widely known about in 1968. The legitimacy of the post-1956 Hungarian regime was built on many dubious constructions of the recent past, but it even started with an obfuscation of its beginnings. As far as most were aware, Kádár had emerged as an independent governing authority from within the Hungarian Politburo and government. Those who had conspired with the Soviet intervention in Hungary announced the following on 4 November 1956: “We ministers and former members of the government of Imre Nagy [...] declare that on 1 November 1956 [we] have left the government and have taken the initiative of creating the Hungarian Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.”9 It was allegedly for the sake of this so-called revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ regime that the Soviets had suppressed the uprising. In 1968, a similar device was sought by the Soviets, except this time they seemed to operate with the confidence that what had been achieved through a sleight of hand in 1956 could be brought to pass more concretely. While Kádár had flown back into Hungary in 1956 on the coat-tails of the Red Army, the Soviets were seemingly hopeful that, this time, the pretence of 1956 could be realised in 1968: a revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government could be waiting to welcome the Soviets in Prague.

When it became clear that Dubcek would not break away from Cerník and Smrkovsky in favour of Bilak’s pro-Soviet clique, it was the latter that the Soviets relied upon to deliver a legitimation of the invasion, before it began, from within the Presidium. On the day after the Soviet Politburo approved the invasion, Brezhnev told a hastily gathered meeting of the leaders of the GDR, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria that “the healthy forces in the [KSC] Presidium, if they remain united to the end, number six full members as of today”.10 This would constitute a majority that could force through changes at the Presidium’s next meeting on 20 August, hours before the invasion was scheduled to begin. This assessment matched Bilak’s claim to Shelest a month earlier that healthy forces which could be depended upon included himself, Kolder, Rigo, Barbírek, Piller and Svestka — six members of the Presidium. At the same meeting, Brezhnev read from a cable sent by Soviet ambassador Chervonenko, in which he outlined the Czechoslovak hard-liners’ plans. “At midnight at the presidium session they will try to insist on a definitive split and adopt a resolution expressing political no-confidence in the right-wing and take upon themselves the de facto leadership of the party and government.”11 The second invitation letter would then be published on the morning of 21 August (it would in fact significantly not see light of day until the 22nd), while it also, according to Indra’s assurance, would be gaining the support through the night of at least fifty members of the Central Committee (CC) and government.12 “On 21–22 August a CC plenum will be convened, as will a session of the National Assembly”, Chervonenko’s cable confidently continued, “both of which, without question, will [...] approve the appeal to the fraternal parties for military assistance.” Meanwhile, “through one of the most trustworthy activists of their group [Karel Hoffman], radio and television will be shut down, as will all telephone and telegraph communications”.13

Therefore, the Soviet plan of invasion proceeded on the assumption that as the forces of the five armies were entering Czechoslovakia, a well-supported Czechoslovak faction friendly to the intervention would be seizing decisive control of Party, government, Parliament and the media, smoothing the way to a pro-Soviet post-intervention regime. But there were hints that these plans were not as dependable as Chervonenko portrayed them to be in the fact that the crucial matter of domestic leadership was still in flux. Where was the Kádár of 1968? Chervonenko confirmed the idea that Dubcek “has gone over completely to the side of the Right”, but expressed the hope that Prime Minister Cerník — a pro- reform ally of Dubcek’s — would thanks to his “cowardice and conceit” be persuaded to lead the new government on the 21st. Otherwise, the hard-liners would “declare that they are setting up a provisional revolutionary government headed by Comrade Pavlovsky”. A former Czechoslovak ambassador to the Soviet Union and a relatively obscure government minister, Oldrich Pavlovsky was a strange choice for leadership; it would in fact be in the name of his co-conspirator, Indra, that the so-called revolutionary government would be abortively announced. President Svoboda, whose approval was necessary in order to retain a legal and moral veneer of legitimacy over this coup attempt would, according to Chervonenko, only be called upon for open support “when the troops are in control of the situation”.14

Not only was this idea of strong Czechoslovak support for “fraternal assistance” that would be legitimised by a majority of the Presidium assumed, it was disseminated both privately and publicly from 19 to 21 August as the final and foremost justification for the invasion. In a 19 August memorandum to top Party officials, the Soviet Politburo stated that “a majority who wish to defend the cause of socialism” had “appealed” to the five Communist allies “with a request to give them military assistance in the struggle against counter-revolution”.15 On the same day, Chervonenko received from the Politburo the text of an appeal he was to take to President Svoboda during the late night of the 20th, which claimed that the five had “received a request from a majority of members of the [KSC] Presidium and from many members of the [Czechoslovak] government to provide armed assistance to the Czechoslovak people to help them resist counter-revolution”.16 And, as allied forces began seizing control of Czechoslovakia in the early hours of Wednesday, 21 August, the Soviet News Agency, TASS, released a statement around the world, announcing that “Party and Government leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have asked the Soviet Union and other allied states to render the fraternal Czechoslovak people urgent assistance, including assistance with armed forces”.17

To be continued


* The present chapter edited by Hungarian Review is from David A. J. Reynolds, Revising History, Constructing Counter-revolution: The Meaning of Hungary' 1956 and the Definition of the Prague Spring, March 2016, unpublished manuscript. (In the previous Czech 1968 article by David A. Reynolds, on page 71 of the September 2018 issue of Hungarian Review, a printer’s error put “between sixty and eighty” the number of the civilian casualties of the massacre by Soviet and Hungarian security forces on Kossuth Square, at the Hungarian Parliament on 25 October 1956. The correct number is between six hundred and eight hundred (and perhaps nine). We apologise for the error. The Editors.)




1 Alexander Dubcek, Hope Dies Last: The Autobiography of Alexander Dubcek, trans. Jirí Hochman (New York: Kodansha, 1993), 193.

2 Roger Gough, A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism, and Hungary (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), 170—171.

3 “Document 45: Appeal by a Group of Members of CCP Central Committee and CSR Government and National Assembly”, in Robin Alison Remington, ed., Winter in Prague: Document on Czechoslovak Communism in Crisis (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1969), 298.

4 Gough, 170-171.

5 Ibid.

6 Peter Pastor, “Comments on ‘The Prague Spring,’ Hungary and the Warsaw Pact Invasion”, in M. Mark Stolarik, ed., The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968 (Mundelein: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2010), 234.

7 “Document No. 81: Transcript of Leonid Brezhnev’s Telephone Conversation with Alexander Dubcek, August 13, 1968”, nsarchive.gwu.edu/coldwar/documents/doc81.pdf.

8 Dubcek, 173.

9 “Stenographic record of a 4 November 1956 meeting of Party activists.”

10 “Document No. 92: Leonid Brezhnev’s Speech at a Meeting of the ‘Warsaw Five’ in Moscow, August 18, 1968 (Excerpts)”, Jaromír Navrátil, ed., The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Documents Reader (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998), 389.

11 Ibid., 390.

12 While six would be a majority of the Presidium, however, fifty would be far short of a majority in the Central Committee, which consisted of 144 members.

13 “Leonid Brezhnev’s Speech at a Meeting of the ‘Warsaw Five’ in Moscow, August 18, 1968”, Navrátil, 391.

14 Ibid.

15 “Document No. 94: Message from the CPSU Politburo to Members of the CPSU CC and Other Top Party Officials Regarding the Decision to Intervene in Czechoslovakia, August 19, 1968”, Navrátil, 394-395.

16 “Document No. 96: Cable to Ambassador Stepan Chervonenko from Moscow with a Message for President Svoboda, August 19, 1968, and Chervonenko’s Response, August 21, 1968”, Navrátil, 398-399.

17 “TASS Statement on Military Intervention [August 21, 1968]”, HeinOnline: heinonline.org/HOL/ LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/intlm7&div=141&id=&page= (Accessed March 1, 2016).

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